TAMPA — There was a path to this point in the Eastern Conference finals that could have seemed normal, even satisfying. Trade losses with wins. Win at home but fight on the road. Come home for the sixth game with every bit of confidence the Washington Capitals would force a seventh, in which anything could happen.
The Capitals have not taken that path. And not only is their season on the brink because of it, but they are reviving a tough, tired theme that appeared to be buried less than two weeks ago.
The shape of this series against the Tampa Bay Lightning is such that the Capitals frittered away their breakthrough against Pittsburgh and are now in position to do something that seemed impossible after vanquishing the Penguins: add to their ignominy. The Capitals’ 3-2 loss to the Lightning on Saturday night at Amalie Arena was their third straight. That comfortable advantage? Poof. One more loss, and that’s it. No more hockey.
Before you start bemoaning that the past is the past and it’s trite and lazy to associate these Caps with those Caps, a reminder: In the past 50 years, 21 teams won the first two games on the road in either the conference or Stanley Cup finals. All 21 of those teams won the series. None needed a seventh game.
The Capitals won the first two games in Tampa. Now those same Capitals need to win Monday night at home to force a seventh game.
Such a stat would fit right in with all those old Capitals. And then these Capitals said things all those old Capitals might have said.
“Obviously, two mistakes and they score a goal,” captain Alex Ovechkin said. “But give us credit. We don’t stop playing.”
Um, Alex . . . uh, your reasoning. It seems . . .
Wait. Barry Trotz, the coach, is talking about the second goal of the game, in which Washington defenseman Dmitry Orlov got tangled up with Tampa Bay’s Steven Stamkos. The Capitals thought it was a trip. The Lightning put the puck in the net.
“My opinion?” Trotz said. “Yeah, it turned into a scoring chance, and we had puck possession. I thought that that was missed. There’s probably a few missed. We didn’t get a power play.”
Guys, guys, guys. Come on. You blitzed through the first two rounds and built a lead in this series by owning the moment, be it good or bad. You started to reshape the personality of the franchise by acknowledging there would be problems along the way and shrugging them off.
Now, those responses? On the heels of a first period that sent a stench from Ybor City to Adams Morgan?
“We stunk in the first,” defenseman Matt Niskanen said.
Well said by Niskanen, who began his soliloquy by saying, “The first three goals were all my fault,” which wasn’t entirely accurate, even if it was admirable. Either way, those “first three” goals were the only goals Tampa Bay needed. Twenty putrid minutes, then a first-shift goal in the second to fall down 3-0.
With what’s at stake, how does that happen?
“Probably looking at an 8 o’clock start,” Trotz said. “Not a 7:15.”
Cute line. Keep in mind the season’s on the ledge.
Think about how you feel right now and how a different route here might have left completely different emotions. Say Washington had split the first two games in Tampa, taken the series lead by holding home ice in Game 3, then lost grinding, one-goal games in Games 4 and 5.
The series would have had some flow, a feel that, once back home, the Caps would regain their footing and work their way back here. Game 7? Flip a coin.
As it has played out, though, this feels like an avalanche. And it brings up the touchy subject of the Capitals’ past. And when a team reaches the conference finals for the first time in 20 years, the past is supposed to be a topic we put away, not to mention the pain that came with it.
But now it’s inescapable, and if this series feels like a replay, it’s because it is. There is the tiny example of the first-round series between these teams in 2003, when the Capitals won the first two games in Tampa — and then lost four straight, the last in three overtimes on home ice.
We’re somehow not supposed to mention that now?
Let’s get this part over with quickly, then.
In 1985, the Capitals took a two-game lead in a best-of-five series against the New York Islanders and lost the next three. Season over.
So began a staggering trend. Including that year, the Capitals have taken such a lead in 19 series. Their record in such series: 9-10.
It’s a world in which taking an advantage is no advantage at all. Apply it to this situation, one in which Ovechkin’s first trip to the conference finals looked as if it would obscure so many past problems, and it’s disheartening.
The Capitals absolutely played better after falling behind 3-0. Sure they did. But as Ovechkin asked, give them “credit”? Whatever. Credit, in May, isn’t worth much. They played well in Game 4, too. They lost them both. Results matter. Talking about style points — how you played well but didn’t get the result you wanted — is so Washington Capitals, 2008-17. So is bringing up the officiating.
Aren’t we beyond that?
There is, of course, Monday night’s Game 6 at Capital One Arena. It is a chance to earn another chance, an opportunity to prove what this team had proved to this point — that it is different, that the bumps along the road don’t bother it.
“A lot of people counted us out when we were down 0-2 in the first round,” Niskanen said. “Things got hard in the last series and we could’ve melted, and we just kept playing. So that’s what we’ve got to do again: bring our best effort in Game 6 at home. Win a game.”
So think of it this way: The Capitals haven’t lost four straight games all year. If they really are better than the versions that preceded them, then they will go home and beat Tampa Bay. They certainly can.
Will they? The shape of this series matters. Right now, the Capitals are reeling. The house money has been spent. The season is in the balance. And there’s 60 minutes for them to get out the shovel and bury their past — again.